Bendix Anderson in Building Operations on March 10, 2020
The brownstone at 6 S. Portland Ave. in Brooklyn's Fort Greene Historic District was coming apart. The front steps were crumbling, the facade was cracking, and the original cast-iron newel posts at the base of the front steps had been replaced with wooden facsimiles covered with black paint. “I removed one with my hands one day,” says Andrew Parker, president of the self-managed six-unit co-op. “It was just rotted plywood.”
None of the shareholders had any expertise in restoring an 1870s-vintage building. “We all have careers in different fields,” Parker says. “No one has time to be onsite and play general contractor every day.” The co-op also lacked the money to tackle the necessary repairs.
Another small self-managed co-op, this one at 35-45 78th St. in the Jackson Heights Historic District in Queens, faced a similar quandary. The 15-unit 1920s-vintage building needed a new roof and extensive brick repointing, and the terra-cotta cornice was crumbling. But like its Brooklyn counterpart, the co-op didn’t have the cash or the expertise to repair a century-old building. “We’re self-managed,” says Mark Kempson, a board member. “We don’t have a lot of knowledge about historic rehabilitation.”
Both co-ops were rescued by a little-known source of low-interest loans: the New York Landmarks Conservancy. This nonprofit was created in 1973 to provide technical and financial assistance to owners of historic buildings. In 1982, the Historic Properties Fund became part of the conservancy after the federal government sold the massive Archive Building in Greenwich Village. Money from commercial rents in the building is one source of revenue for the Historic Properties Fund, which has provided more that $29 million in low-interest loans to 260 properties throughout the five boroughs.
To qualify for a loan, a building must be located in one of the city’s 141 Historic Districts or in a neighborhood that has been deemed eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. About 5 percent of the buildings in New York City meet one or both of these criteria. The fund currently has a total of $9 million in assets, and it is able to tailor loans to meet buildings’ unique needs.
At 6 South Portland Ave., for instance, the conservancy offered a 5 percent interest rate on a new $200,000 mortgage – enough to cover the full cost of the work. The loan’s 15-year term is a little longer than the customary 10 years, resulting in a monthly payment that roughly matches the amount the co-op had paid for its old mortgage, which softened the sting for shareholders.
The conservancy offered more than money. Its staff guided the co-op board as it interviewed potential architects and contractors. “Our involvement is kind of unusual,” says James Mahoney, project and accounting manager for the conservancy. “Most banks just hand over the money.”
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